In the early 1980s, America was in a recession, Jane Fonda was the reigning fitness guru, few people owned cell phones and the health club industry was still in its infancy, with only about 5,000 clubs operating across the country.
Fast forward to 2009 — America again is in a recession, TV's “The Biggest Loser” inspires people to lose weight, Baby Boomers are nearing retirement age, the country has more than 30,000 health clubs and almost everyone owns a cell phone, many of which have cameras.
There's no doubt that the world has changed since the health club industry began. Although group changing areas and gang showers were the locker room norm for many years, member demand, cell phone technology and an aging population are making privacy a bigger priority for club design.
Indeed, locker rooms are one of the most widely updated areas in a fitness facility, says Rudy Fabiano, president of Fabiano Designs, Montclair, NJ.
“In our renovation work, by far the biggest area of concentration is the locker rooms,” says Fabiano. “Usually, every major renovation of a club includes these areas. Most of the time, the locker rooms are very dated, are in poor condition and do not really accommodate any privacy or barrier-free design.”
Club members are demanding this design shift toward privacy, says Robert McDonald, senior principal at Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, Denver.
“In regular fitness clubs, the days of gang showers are behind us,” McDonald says. “Users are pushing [the change]. We're installing a lot of exclusively private showers with all the concerns about privacy because of cell phones and cameras. Everyone's concerned about privacy for members.”
This first became an issue for university rec centers, he says.
“Universities are where it first cropped up because college kids are so tech savvy — especially in college student rec centers and athletic departments,” McDonald says. “It's a sign of the times.”
Gene Grzywna, director of campus recreation at Northeastern University, Boston, agrees. His school limits cell phone usage to the rec center atrium and outer lobby areas.
“We are fearful that the camera phone feature of many of today's cell phones could catch someone dressing or undressing in our locker rooms, and they wouldn't even know that their image had been captured on someone's cell phone,” Grzywna says. “We are safeguarding the facility users' privacy by not allowing cell phones in locker rooms and activity areas.”
Rather than banning cell phone use, many health club owners are revamping their locker rooms for greater privacy.
Other issues, such as programming and children in locker rooms, are prompting club owners to make private changing areas available.
At the Lakeview Athletic Club in Chicago, owner Pat Cunningham installed four family changing rooms in addition to men's and women's locker rooms. Cunningham hired Fabiano Designs to transform the former women's shelter into a family health club. The new 47,000-square-foot fitness facility has four stories, plus a pool deck with an outdoor pool.
The club's members include many young families, which prompted several members to request more control over children in the locker rooms, Cunningham says.
“We were forced into adding family changing rooms by member demand. It's always a constant struggle with kids in the locker rooms,” Cunningham says. “It's a problem if a woman has a 5- or 6-year-old boy she's taking into the women's locker room — or even if a man is taking his daughter into the men's locker room.”
Each 10-foot-by-12-foot family changing room has a shower, sink, toilet and changing area. Outside the rooms is a row of lockers. The changing rooms are near the pool because it's the main area of the club that kids use, other than the designated Kids Club room. However, Cunningham notes that kids and families aren't the only ones using the private changing rooms.
“A lot of people like them for privacy,” Cunningham says.
Fabiano's firm has installed family changing rooms in many clubs that offer aquatics.
“In general, I would have to say that this has been more of a response to programming that may bring in a specific population than a whole change in culture,” Fabiano says. “Pools, for instance, are programmed to have more family units, and thus family changing rooms and accommodations for toilets and showers.”
McDonald agrees, saying, “When there are aquatics involved, almost 100 percent of new clubs designed have assisted changing areas or cabanas with changing spaces and showers.”
Pools not only host programming for children, but also for senior citizens, who are drawn to aquatics classes and appreciate the private changing rooms. Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), says older members prefer private changing areas for several reasons.
“Vanity is an issue because once you get to a certain age, you don't want people to see you,” Milner says. “You may also need assistance from a spouse or caregiver. Older people's muscles can get so tight that their flexibility doesn't allow them to take their shirts off or undo their own socks and shoes.”
Another concern for locker rooms designed to be accessible for older adults is safety, Milner says. For instance, gang showers, where everyone showers together, don't always work as well for people who may need access to grab bars to avoid slipping on wet tile, he says.
Staff accessibility is another often overlooked aspect of serving seniors in the locker room, he notes.
“Are staff on hand, or do they just check the locker room for cleanliness every half hour or so?” Milner asks.
Installing emergency buttons, usually by the showers, provides a safeguard for falls to seniors or people with disabilities. Many of Fabiano's clients are including such safety features, he says.
“As we are moving to develop designs for unmanned spaces, such as hotel fitness and country club gyms, there also is a need for safety and security in the locker rooms, such as a panic alarm/button in each locker room,” Fabiano says.
Club management would be wise to promote safety features and family changing rooms to members, Milner says.
“There are a lot of clubs that have space for caregivers to help in place, but few promote these things,” Milner says. “All of this is marketable. It's customer service.”
Marketing these offerings is smart for many reasons, he says.
“Many club owners say they just don't want a ‘gray-haired’ club, but even if you don't want to gray your club, you do want to green your bottom line,” Milner says.
The population of people aged 50 and older will grow by 25 percent in the next 10 years. For that reason, the ICAA recommends making health clubs as accessible as possible for older adults. ICAA also developed a checklist for seniors to use when choosing a health club. (Visit www.icaa.cc to learn more.)
Transgendered people are another population that's increasingly important to keep in mind for locker room design. Thirteen states have passed anti-discrimination laws that affect transgendered people's access to locker rooms. Cities and counties also are passing similar bills, including the city of Gainesville, FL, which passed an anti-discrimination law for transgendered people.
The law initially caused concerns from business owners, including club operators, who questioned whether they would have to provide separate locker room accommodations for transgendered people — and the cost of those accommodations. The final Gainesville law does not allow discrimination against transgendered people, but it does stipulate that a business is allowed to deny transgendered people access to facilities where being seen naked is unavoidable.
“Transgender individuals are not allowed into a locker room based on their inner sense, only their biological sex. So we didn't have to change anything with our locker rooms,” says Joe Cirulli, owner of Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers.
Massachusetts is considering expanding its hate crime laws to include transgendered people, something that could affect health club locker room access. A state judiciary committee recently heard testimony on Massachusetts House Bill 1728 supporting transgender rights. Helen Durkin, a representative from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), testified at the hearing.
“If the proposed legislation becomes law, there would be situations at health clubs where not only adults, but also children, would be in close proximity to an individual with the anatomy of the opposite sex as that individual undressed,” Durkin said.
Privacy issues involving locker rooms can be handled without discrimination, says Jennifer Levi, attorney and director of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders Transgender Rights Project, who testified at the Massachusetts hearing.
“There are very easy ways to address these concerns without jeopardizing passage of the bill,” Levi says. “One way people generally address privacy issues is to provide private spaces for anyone who wants to use them.”
A growing number of fitness facilities already are providing these spaces.
“We have been including private changing rooms in most women's locker rooms for some time now and have recently seen the trend extend to men's locker rooms, also,” Fabiano says. “To accommodate special groups, we do try to push for at least one private toilet and shower room in every club.”
Locker room privacy may become less of an issue if locker room usage continues to decrease, as McDonald has observed.
“People use locker rooms less and less because more and more people arrive at the health club dressed for their workouts, then leave and shower at home,” McDonald says. “The trend is to not provide as many showers as in the past.”
So as shower numbers decrease and private changing areas become more common, club owners and architects are smart to revise locker room design accordingly.